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In fact, Las Vegas was so utterly embarrassed by the very idea that it out-rebounded the Doctors of Dunk 48-43 and Theus came off the bench early in the first half and scored on a flamboyant breakaway dunk of his own. So much for pessimism.
Las Vegas fans are among the most rabid and vociferous; Crum later estimated the Rebels' home-court advantage at "10 to 12 points." But early in the game the fans had little to cheer about. The speed of Louisville's Phillip Bond negated the vaunted Las Vegas press and allowed the Cardinals to penetrate. As they raced into a 40-23 lead with 5:19 left in the half, they had Tarkanian ready to swallow his towel.
But then the Rebels started to battle back. Las Vegas has played fitfully this year although it leads the country in scoring with a 106-point average and now has a 20-2 record. Various theories are offered for the team's malaise: the broken ankle that sidelined leading rebounder Jackie Robinson for the season; the current NCAA investigation; the fact that the club has so many transfers and rehabilitation cases that it could be called the Salvation Army; and team eccentric Lew Brown's disturbing habits, which have included bringing his dog to practice. But it was the 6'11" Brown's rebounding that turned the game around late in the first half. Brown was the match that lit the fuse, and junior-college transfer Larry Moffett was the dynamite. Moffett had 16 points and 15 rebounds as Las Vegas displayed an inside game for one of the few times this season.
The fact that three of Louisville's top players—Cox, Gallon and Griffith—got into foul trouble did nothing to hurt the Vegas comeback. The Rebels rallied savagely to trail only 49-43 at the half, and when they returned after the break they riddled Louisville's desperation zone as Crum tried to protect his endangered players with an umbrella defense that Eddie Owens and Sam Smith turned inside out with jump shots.
"We didn't expect them to make 25-footers," said Crum later. The players on both teams could have told him that it's easy when there are nets on the basket, the sun is not in your eyes and the basketball is round. Never was the aura of the playground more evident than in the final half when during a stretch of 13 minutes each team scored 39 points. With less than four minutes remaining, Louisville still led, 92-88. Then, within 18 seconds, team captain Robert Smith scored five points to give Las Vegas the lead 93-92.
First the 5'11" senior hit over Louisville's 6'7�" Larry Williams. Smith was fouled by Williams on the play and made the free throw. When the Rebels got the ball back, Smith swished another jumper to put his team ahead for the first time since the opening minutes of the game. A basket by Gallon gave the lead back to the Cardinals but then Gondrezick put the Rebels ahead to stay. And when Theus and Gondo made their pressure-packed free throws, Louisville's Doctors of Dunk were just another bunch of hotshots who had swaggered into the wrong neighborhood.
"We're not afraid of anybody," said Theus in a locker room where joyous fans were kissing and hugging the players. "We play to our competition." Then he took a big swig of champagne. Why not? Las Vegas had won the National Playground Championship.